How a lake's microbes can power fuel cells

Future-fuel bio-hydrogen has a new generating plant: a sleepy salt lake in Washington.

soap lake lead image
Credit: By Steven Pavlov(Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Looking for a new site for a data center? Well, the banks of a salt lake in Washington State might provide the perfect power-friendly real estate solution.

Scientists have discovered that microbes in spa tourist stop Soap Lake, a three-hour drive from Seattle, organically produce biohydrogen. Hydrogen can be used to create power via fuel cells.

Now, the results aren't all in, so don't go packing the kids just yet, but if the scientists are right, we may have a new power source.

Soap Lake

The town of Soap Lake, Washington, has been primarily known for its medicinal lake that cures ills. The sleepy town's secondary claim to fame has been its 2002, and as yet unfulfilled, plan to build the world's largest lava lamp as a tourist attraction.

However, it's a bacteria called halanaerobium hydrogeniforman that promises to indelibly etch Soap Lake on the map—a dot com one, possibly.

Bacteria

Halanaerobium hydrogeniformans is a haloalkaliphilic bacteria, which means it has adapted to saline and alkaline conditions, of which Soap Lake consists—in preponderance. In other words, some unique bugs like the salty water a lot.

Those particular living organisms are capable of producing hydrogen when isolated.

However, as you can imagine, the process is not quite as simple as filling a beaker full of microbes, water, and salt to charge your iPhone.

Non-mixing lake

Soap Lake is a meromietic lake, which means that layers of the waters don't mix. Wind or other turbulence don't churn the water, and in this case haven't done so for at least 2,000 years.

Wikipedia lists another 10 meromietic lakes in the U.S., plus the Black Sea, among other global spots.

That non-mixing, caused also in part by steep gradients in salt and the shape of Soap Lake with no outlets, creates an unusual environment that has led to this "microbial community."

This is all according to Melanie R. Mormile of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, who discovered the extremophile and authored an article on it in Frontiers, an open-science academic publication. She also holds patents relating to biohydrogen production.

Biohydrogen

Mormile says that the rod-shaped microbes found in the lake create biohydrogen and also an organic compound called 1,3-propanediol that can be used in adhesives and act as an anti-freeze.

Biohydrogen is an existing technology and has characteristics that are similar to bio-diesel. Algae is an already proven source. Biohydrogen is considered an advanced bio-fuel.

Bio-fuels

Bio-fuels, like biohydrogen, can be obtained from food crops, waste, and microbes, with microbes being the preferred source.

Bio-fuels derived from microbes, rather than food, are generally preferred because they don't require space-hogging food production or lots of sunlight, as is needed with waste-derived bio-fuels, according to Victoria Woollaston, wrting about Mormile's discovery in newspaper website Mailonline.

Hydrogen, the product produced, is used in fuel cells. Those cells are considered more efficient than normal combustion engines.

Next up?

The next step is to figure out a way to replicate the 2,000-year-old conditions found in the mineral-resplendent, but tourist-slow, Soap Lake. The organism's genome is mapped, so theoretically it would be possible to reproduce it.

And maybe the town won't need a 60-foot lava lamp to attract visitors after all.

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